The Death of Ultralight Backpacking

I first began a draft of this post this summer. Lately there have been quite a few comments from the Internet backpacking community about the death of ultralight backpacking.

All of this started with a blog post by Andrew Skurka this summer titled, Stupid Light. That post stirred up quite a bit of controversy. I suppose using the word, “stupid” was the catalyst. The gist of the post is that one should choose their gear based on the conditions of the trip, the skill and experience of the hiker. Taking gear or food that is too light can have bad consequences; such as being uncomfortable or even experiencing death. His point is too many people assemble their hiking gear to meet some arbitrary weight goal; not the gear suitable or required for any given trip. This is pretty logical thinking to me. Andy provided many examples of how he went stupid light in the past. So it was a not a condemnation of ultralight backpacking, but his observations and learnings. Good stuff, I thought.As a result of Andrew’s post, Dave Chenault posted Ultralight is dead on his blog. And now the furor over these postings is spreading like a wildfire.

So what is “ultralight?” Depends. It is used to describe all sorts of materials, hobbies, and manufactured goods — most of which have nothing to do with backpacking at all. I think the term originally came into use to describe very light aircraft, most of which were homemade affairs.

My Definition of Ultralight Backpacking

For me ultralight is a mindset. The ultralight backpacker relies on experience, skill,  and knowledge. His gear is pared down to eliminate all unnecessary items, and each piece of gear is carefully selected based on the requirements, expected conditions of the trip and the hiker’s skill. Weight is a prime consideration, based on what the gear needs to do.

I have always been an ultralight hiker; that is — the total weight of my gear was much lighter than what the average hiker carried. This comes from my military survival training, where we were taught how to navigate, travel, and survive with little or no gear. But that is not fun. My hiking goals are to enjoy myself, stay warm and dry with the lightest pack weight possible. The lightness makes each step more enjoyable than hauling traditional gear.  I have been doing this for almost 50 years.

Many people think the lightweight/ultralight revolution began in the 1999 when Ray Jardine published Beyond Backpacking. Sorry — people had been light and ultralight long before Jardine.

In 1984 Colin Fletcher wrote in The Complete Walker III

But you should know, and probably do, that a tide race has set in toward ultralight gear. It’s practitioners, surfing out over the mountains on the crest of the craze, have even been called “The New Wave.” And in their rules the emphases have shifted. They strive to reduce to a minimum the number of items they carry (often by sensible multiple usage); and then they gossamerize every item toward vanishing point. Result: loads that by old standards are featherweight…

…Two experts recently made a much-publicized 4 1/2 day, 92 mile summer trip in rugged Oregon mountains carrying just 15 pounds each, FSO.

So what is wrong about ultralight? Nothing. But in the backpacking community there have morphed some very precise definitions of ultralight. It is not my broad definition stated above; but something that has happened — the quantification of the term. The source of the quantification probably originated over at BPL ( BPL is one of the premier places to visit for all backpacking things light. And over time a hierarchy of definitions has appeared. Even the folks at BPL cannot all agree upon exact definitions. Generally though, the following apply (base weight is how much the pack weighs without food, water, and fuel):

  • Light = base weight under 20 pounds
  • Ultralight (UL) = base weight under 10 pounds
  • Super Ultralight (SUL) = base weight under 5 pounds
  • Extremely Ultralight (XUL) = base weight under 3 pounds
Now there is nothing wrong with trying to analyze gear or even develop categories. It is a good exercise to review the gear lists of others and compare them to what you are using. It is part of the learning process.
But some people want to classify themselves based on these weights, or hit certain weight thresholds without regard to experience level required or the conditions of the hike — the stupid light, coined by Skurka. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve a certain weight threshold to see what you can do with it. That is part of our nature — always trying to learn and improve — or it should be part of our nature. I have done this many times. [see XUL Trip Report]. I have done many SUL and XUL trips, and my skill has increased on each trip. But I often find myself at around 7 pounds these days. And should I exceed the “Ultralight Weight Category,” I still consider myself and ultralight hiker.
Another thing we see these days is an “elitism” associated with attaining some predefined weight barrier. I often see people pushing others to get down to some arbitrary weight. They pick apart the gear lists of other’s and recommend they get down to XX weight for the entire kit. It is almost an evangelical recruiting effort to convert others to The Way. Ray Jardine calls it the “Ray Way” on his website.
Heck, I don’t encourage people to even try backpacking; there are already too many people in the wilderness.
So why the focus on ultralight backpacking on this website? Well, that is what I do and I share my “ultralight” adventures with my family and friends. These trips may not meet the quantified category of under xx pounds, but to me they are an ultralight mindset as I mentioned earlier. I have always had an ultralight approach to backpacking, and I never did read up on current trends or what others were doing until four years ago. As I approached 60, I found that I was not as strong or fast as in my youth. So I started doing a little research and Internet surfing to see what was out there to improve things for me. And I stumbled upon, where I have participated for almost 4 years. Although my previous observations regarding BPL may sound negative, it is the only backpacking website I regularly visit. Lots of great people there, and many fantastic articles. When it comes to lightening a pack or the latest gear, it is the place to visit. Since I don’t need much in the way of new gear, the attraction for me these days are the people who post in the community forums.
To summarize, for me ultralight is not dead.

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